Isaac Watts: The Man Behind the Hymns
In May, 1789, Adam Rankin, having travelled from Kentucky to Philadelphia for the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, made the following query: 'Whether the churches ... have not faller into a great pernicious error by disusing Rouse's versifications of David's Psalms, and adopting ... Watts's imitation?' The General Assembly gave Rankin a lengthy hearing and 'endeavoured to relieve his mind from the difficulties', experiencing little success. They recommended 'that exercise of Christian charity to those who differ from him in their views of this matter, which is exercised toward himself'. Further, they admonished him to 'guard against disturbing the peace of the church on this head'. Thus, Isaac Watts, the writer of such hymns as 'Alas and did My Saviour bleed', 'O God Our Help in Ages Past', and 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross' was approved and his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament were assured a permanent place in the worship of Presbyterians in America.
To people living today it seems strange that using Watts' paraphrases of the Psalms in public worship would raise such grave concern. But to many living in the 18th century any singing in public worship other than the standard accepted translations of the Psalms was a return to the 'popish' forms of medieval Catholicism. Only occasionally were paraphrases or hymns allowed, and then just for special occasions and for specific congregations — not whole church bodies. Thus, for Isaac Watts to have written 600 hymns and versifications of the Psalms for use among the whole Protestant Christian world was a radical break with the past. It revolutionized the worship of dissenting churches and established the English hymn. In this light, Isaac Watts can truly be called the Father of the English hymn.
Isaac Watts was born in Southampton, England on July 17th, 1674, to Isaac and Sarah Watts. The oldest of eight children, he was brought up in the Nonconformist tradition of his parents. His father had been put into prison for his beliefs before his first son was born and was not released until the following year. Upon rejoining his family the elder Watts began instructing his son in the ways of religion which would have such an impact on his life.
During these early years, Isaac Watts began to display his skill for writing verse. Even before he was six years old he had written some verses. When his mother discovered them, she questioned whether he could have composed them. In order to assure her of his ability he produced an acrostic using his name:
I am a vile polluted lump of earth,
So I've continu'd ever since my birth;
Although Jehovah grace does daily give me,
As sure this monster Satan will deceive me,
Come, therefore, Lord, from Satan's claws relieve me.
Wash me in thy blood, O Christ,
And grace divine impart,
Then search and try the corners of my heart,
That I in all things may be fit to do
Service to thee, and sing thy praises too.
As a child Watts also demonstrated a passion for learning. He began to study Latin at the age of four, Greek when he was nine, French when he was ten, and Hebrew when he was thirteen. At the age of six he came under the instruction of the Rev John Pinhorne, to whom he became closely attached as a dedicated student. During this time his father was again 'persecuted and imprisoned for nonconformity for six months', as his Memorandum tells us. Upon release the elder Watts was forced to live in London for two years, separated from his family. He sent his children a letter during this period which reflects the kind of upbringing they had received. He told them how much he missed them and that he remembered them always in prayer, adding, 'Though it hath pleased the only wise God to suffer the malice of ungodly men ... to break out against me ... we must endeavour by patient waiting to submit to his will without murmuring'. He closed by assuring them that God's 'infinite wisdom' was at work in his trials. Watts seems to have learned well from his father, for the same spirit of humility and submission before God characterized his attitude toward his own sufferings due to poor health throughout his life. Once during a severe illness he wrote,
I know not but my days of restraint and confinement by affliction may appear my brightest days, when I come to take a review of them in the light of heaven.
Watts' ability as a student became well-known, so that as the time approached for him to enter college a physician in Southampton, Dr John Speed, offered to pay for his preparation for the Christian ministry at an English university. Since only Anglicans could attend Oxford and Cambridge, Watts respectfully declined the offer, 'determined to take his lot among the dissenters'. Having made this choke, at sixteen he went to the Academy of Newington Green, near London, to prepare for the ministry. The students there were under the tutelage of Rev Thomas Rowe, a Nonconformist minister. The quality of education was very high and Watts applied himself diligently. Samuel Johnson, in his Lives of the English Poets, wrote,
Some Latin Essays ... written as exercises at this academy, show a degree of knowledge, both philosophical and theological, such as very few attain by a much longer course of study.
At the age of twenty, after completing his studies at the Academy, Watts returned to his family in Southampton where he stayed for two years engaging himself in reading, prayer, and meditation further to prepare himself to serve God in the church.
It was during this period that Watts became critical of the psalm-singing in the dissenting congregations, which was bound to the Sternhold and Hopkins version of the Psalms. He felt that the psalmody was crude and impoverished, lacking the dignity and grace that should be a part of Christian worship. His father's response to his complaint was, 'Try then whether you can yourself produce something better'. Watts took up the challenge and the result was:
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst his Father's throne;
Prepare new honors for his name,
And songs before unknown.
Thus began the work for which Isaac Watts is remembered today. Having spent two years in Southampton preparing himself, in October, 1696, Watts went to become tutor to the son of Sir John Hartopp at Newington. There he taught and studied for five years, becoming assistant to Rev Isaac Chauncey, pastor of the Mark Lane independent church. He preached his first sermon on July 17th, 1698, his twenty-fourth birthday. His interest in improving the worship among independent churches continued throughout this period. In 1697 Watts' friend and former classmate at Newington Green, Samuel Say, sent him and another classmate, John Hughes, his paraphrases of some of the Psalms. Hughes' response was enthusiastic, commending Say for his effort and for rescuing 'the noble Psalmist out of the butcherly hands of Sternhold and Hopkins'. Say seems not to have produced more, but the idea was given fresh impetus in Watts' thinking. David Fountain, in his biography, Isaac Watts Remembered, writes that the 'friendship between Say and Watts proved to be one of the influences which caused him some years later to apply himself seriously to the work of "imitating" the Psalms'. This period was also the beginning of Watts' many struggles with extended periods of illness.
In April, 1701, Chauncey resigned as pastor of the Mark Lane congregation and the position was offered to Watts. After some indecision due to his poor health he finally accepted the call on March 8th, 1702. The church began to grow under Watts' ministry at a time when many dissenting churches were in decline. Watts was an outstanding preacher in spite of his small stature and 'thin' voice. His dignified manner, clarity of thought, clear enunciation and his gifts in extemporary preaching combined to make him one of the 'weightiest' preachers of his day. Thus, the congregation multiplied and outgrew its Mark Lane meeting-house, moving to Pinners' Hall, and finally, in 1708, to a brand new meeting-house at Bury Street. But poor health continued to plague Watts and soon it was necessary for the church to appoint the Rev Samuel Price to assist him.
The worst period of illness came in 1712 when Watts was struck by a severe sickness that lasted for most of the next four years. In 1713, believing that death was imminent, Watts recommended that Mr Price be appointed co-pastor.
In the Spring of 1714, Sir Thomas Abney, Lord Mayor of London and a member of Parliament, invited Watts to stay with his family for a week at their country home at Theobalds, hoping that the rest would aid him in his recovery. The visit extended into a residence which lasted thirty-four years, until Watts died. At the Abney home he was able to study and write, and it was there that many of his hymns were composed. The relationship between Watts and the Abney family was warm and he served the family well as a tutor to the Abney children, as a chaplain, and as a friend, while they cared for him during his times of illness. According to Dr Thomas Gibbons in his Memoirs of the Rev Isaac Watts, D.D., without such gracious hospitality he 'might have sunk into his grave under the overwhelming load of infirmities'. Once when Watts commented to a visitor that a week's visit had extended into a stay of thirty years, Lady Abney replied, 'Sir, what you term a long thirty-years visit, I consider the shortest visit my family ever received'.
One of the greatest influences that inspired Watts to write hymns and scriptural paraphrases was his brother Enoch. In a letter to Watts in 1700 he writes, 'In your last you discovered an inclination to oblige the world by showing it your hymns in print', and urges him on in this, assuring him that it is not just out of brotherly admiration that he does so. He recounts how 'mean' the religious poetry of their day is and that in an age of dying devotion poetry like his is needed to 'quicken and revive' worship. He says that, 'were David to speak English, he would choose to make use of your style'. Reminding Watts of the scandalous reputation the dissenters have for their 'imagined aversion to poetry'.
Enoch exhorts him to publish his hymns in order that 'these calumnies will immediately vanish'. Watts eventually took his brother's advice to heart. In 1705 his book of poems, Horae Lyricae, which also contained twenty-five of his hymns, was published. In 1707 the first edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs appeared. In 1709 a second edition went out with 145 new hymns added and revisions made of hymns in the previous edition. After this no further changes were made in the work, but more hymns appeared in later editions of Horae Lyricae and in other works. The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, containing most of his paraphrases of the Psalms, appeared in 1719.
Watts' hymns were received at a time when no one else had been able to succeed in this task. Previously hymns had been written only for specific congregations, not for use by the wider Christian public. Furthermore, hymns were only used on special occasions such as communion. One pastor, Benjamin Keach, used to place a hymn at the end of the service so that those offended by its singing could leave before it was sung. But people accepted and sang Watts' hymns. In a letter to Watts, Phillip Doddridge wrote of a church in which he preached, 'your Psalms and hymns were almost their daily entertainment'. Watts became so popular in England and America that people would sit down, refusing to sing, if a hymn by another composer was announced in the congregation. Thus Watts was able to effect a lasting change in the worship of the churches of his day.
After the publication of The Psalms of David, Watts continued to write, but almost all of his work was prose. He produced a book of children's songs and poetry, a catechism for children, textbooks for college instruction, and a number of essays on theology and philosophy. Samuel Johnson writes of him, 'Every man acquainted with the common principles of human action will look with veneration on the writer who is at one time combating Locke, and at another making a catechism for children in their fourth year'. But it is as a hymn-writer that Isaac Watts is remembered best — he is the Father of the English hymn. What many have called the 'greatest hymn in the English language' was penned by him:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.